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Iran Talks: Should We Stay or Should We Go?

By Blaise Misztal

Monday, June 29, 2015

It is almost certain now that the United States and its negotiating partners will miss the June 30 self-imposed, final deadline for reaching a comprehensive agreement with Iran over its nuclear program. The crucial questions for diplomats now are whether to keep talking and, if so, for how much longer. If a good deal is within reach, it would seem petty to throw away the progress that has been made on a technicality. Yet, if major differences remain after more than 18 months of talks, tens of billions of dollars returned to Iran under an interim agreement, and an agreed upon “framework” for a final deal, the gaps might be unbridgeable. In such a case, talking for talk’s sake could be seen to undermine the U.S. position.

The New Deadline

Even though the interim accord known as the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) technically lapses on July 1, U.S. negotiators have tacitly admitted that the real deadline is a week later. That is when a significant provision of the Corker-Cardin bill, passed in April, goes into effect. That legislation creates a process for the Congress to review and vote on any nuclear deal with Iran negotiated by the executive branch. The period for such congressional review is 30 days as long as the president submits the agreement to Congress by July 9, 2015. Should the agreement not be submitted until July 10 or later, the review period is extended to 60 days.

The administration is keen to avoid this longer review period and thus eager to conclude a deal in time to get it to Congress no later than July 9. A crucial reason for this is that, under the legislation, the president would be unable to provide Iran any sanctions relief until Congress finishes its review and votes on the deal. Given that the speed with which sanctions will be lifted has been one of Iran’s biggest sticking points in the negotiations, they might balk at any such prolonged congressional consideration.

Reasons to Stay

U.S. diplomats have repeatedly asserted that a deal with Iran is within reach, a point backed up by the framework agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was reached in April. That accord suggests not only that the broad brushstrokes of a final deal have already been filled in but also—since negotiations for the JCPOA also ran several days over their deadline—that careful diplomacy cannot be rushed.

Given the bipartisan agreement in Washington that a nuclear Iran should be prevented and that a diplomatic solution is the preferable means to that end, there is also a lot of incentive to keep the talks going in search of a potential solution. This is reinforced by the perception that prolonged negotiations do not have a major cost for the United States: under the JPOA, Iran has curtailed its nuclear program during the course of the negotiations in return for some sanctions relief. As long as the talks continue, in other words, hope for a resolution continues while the threat of an Iranian nuclear advancement is curtailed. Such logic strongly suggests continuing talks.

Reasons to Go

But there are also good reasons to believe both that a deal is much more elusive than U.S. statements suggest and that continued negotiations do have a significant downside.

First, the JCPOA has proven to be far less than the shared vision for a final agreement as it was initially described. Within a matter of days of its announcement on April 2, vastly different statements about what the different parties had actually agreed upon emanated from Washington, Tehran, and Paris. Adding to this already weak foundation for further talks, was a speech delivered by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday, June 23, in which he backtracked even farther on the JCPOA and issued new “red lines” for Iranian negotiators.

These include that: Iran will not accept even a 10-year limit on its nuclear program; research and design into advanced centrifuges should continue during the term of a final deal; all sanctions should immediately be lifted and not be made conditional on Iranian compliance with a final deal; and there will be no inspections of military facilities. Each of these would be a blatant violation of the terms, at least according to the U.S. Department of State, agreed to in the JCPOA. That framework included a 10-year period of limitations on Iran’s nuclear activities, including research and design, a conditional and incremental lifting of sanctions, and, according to President Obama, “the most robust and intrusive inspections and transparency regime ever negotiated.”

The president and his administration have worked hard to convince the Congress and American public that the JCPOA comprises a “good deal” and that its existence is evidence that Iran is willing to negotiate in good faith and wants to reach an agreement. Khamenei’s speech undermines much of those arguments. If the red lines he set are in fact Iran’s new negotiating position, it is far from clear why the United States should be willing to negotiate with a partner that moves the goalposts at the last minute. And if the speech was simply, as some have claimed, a negotiating tactic to extract more U.S. concessions, then negotiators should weigh the cost of those concessions.

Indeed, perhaps more important than his red lines is the following line from Khamenei’s speech: “the current administration of America and decision-makers in that country – need these negotiations. This is the other side of the matter. They need this. It is considered a great victory for them if they can achieve their goal in the negotiations.” As long as this is the view that reigns in Tehran, it seems likely new red lines and demands for additional concessions will continue to be part of Iran’s negotiating strategy. If Khamenei believes that Obama needs a diplomatic victory more than Iran needs an economic lifeline, he will continue to believe that time is on his side. Each passing day without a deal increases the pressure on the White House to reach an agreement and therefore increases their willingness to make concessions.

In this sense, keeping negotiations going can have a real cost that actually makes a deal—at least a “good” deal as defined by the JCPOA—increasingly difficult to achieve. It can signal to Tehran that their calculus is right, that the United States is reluctant to walk away because it needs these talks. And, by thus emboldening Iranian negotiators, staying at the table can actually move the United States further from the foundations of a deal it thought had already been agreed to.

Path Forward

Balancing the desire for a diplomatic resolution with the dangers of emboldening Iran or having to concede to a deal that no longer meets the minimum criteria laid out by the president will be a difficult task. But there might be a way, thanks to Congress, for negotiators to signal both willingness to keep talking with their resolve not to accept anything less than a “good deal.”

Ultimately, the July 9 deadline should matter more for Tehran than for the White House. If the president is confident that he has negotiated a good deal, then that accord should be able to withstand congressional scrutiny, whether it is 30 days or 60. It is the Iranians who should fear that the prolonged review period will delay their access to sanctions relief. This is a real point of leverage that U.S. negotiators should use over Iran.

Rather than continuing negotiations beyond the June 30 deadline, U.S. diplomats could propose an extension of the JPOA and a hiatus in talks—for technical consultations at home—until July 9. This would signal both a good faith willingness to extend the interim deal and continue negotiations, while putting the onus on Iran to quickly reach an agreement or else risk losing on an important issue it cares about.

KEYWORDS: 114TH CONGRESS, DEPARTMENT OF STATE, IRAN, JOINT PLAN OF ACTION, NUCLEAR WEAPONS, PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA